At 52, I Am Finally Paying Attention To The Earth

52 Years Old Today – I Am Finally Paying Attention to The Earth

Cláudio Carvalhaes

It is my turn to celebrate my birthday in the midst of COVID. We are all caught into this garment of death that we brought upon ourselves. COVID is showing us an alarming note saying: “you don’t have limits, you enter anywhere you want to get whatever you desire and turn everything into stuff, or if you allow me: shit! And since you can’t stop, welcome to the new time of plagues!”


Perhaps we never realized before that we all can only live if we breathe together, in harmony with everything that is. George Floyd last words “I can’t breathe” is the voice of billions of people and species, and all other forms of life dying due to our complete detachment from the earth.


I grew up never considering the earth a place to belong. I belonged to my family, to my church and to God which made me a citizen of heaven passing through the earth, a mere blip into heaven. Thus my eschatology was simple: the worse things get on earth, the closer I am to God. I changed in so many ways and even my eschatology changed. However, my lack of relation to the earth never did. The earth was something out there for walks, for “nature,” while my faith was about the humanity only, living mostly in cities. The Jesus of my heart was the “Christ” within culture or better said, Christ against culture. I never heard of a Jesus of the earth and it never occurred to me. Even my liberation theology was distant from the soil.  The earth was often absent from my critique of capitalism and neoliberalism. With the Landless Movement I learned about the agrarian reform but I was still thinking about the land as means of production “only.” I was made a modern, detached from the land and attached to ideas.


I had in me what I learned from the Greeks: the only good life is the examined life. But that got confused when to exam life was also to make my life worth something or utile for something. I bought into doing things and my job only gives me worth if I produce books. Sure everybody needs to produce something and this is the plague we can’t get ourselves out of because everything throw us into some kind of production. Indigenous thinker Ailton Krenak says that because our lives had to be built around production and utility we destroyed life all together. What is the point to life if we have to think about how our lives can be utile? Nonetheless my theological work has always been done within the class struggles and the plight for the poor was a battle to sacralize or give worth to their lives. That was the result of my own examined life. In my head, the earth was like Luther’s acrobatic understanding of the sacrament: in, with and under. Within my life the earth was in me with me and under me but my life was never the earth herself. Mountains were beautiful to see, trees were to give us fruits and shade, animals to either be eaten or become pets and the rest of it had another reason that I never cared much for besides be a part of a larger diverse circle of life.


It took me fifty years to realize the earth beyond science class, wildlife documentaries and pictures from the moon. Fifty years to realize that I am the earth, fifty years to realize I belong to the earth, fifty years to realize the earth is a being themselves with its own ways of being and “sovereignty.” I started to learn that not because of a radical spiritual experience or by reading the Bible because not many people I knew cared to read the Bible in one hand and the earth on the other hand. I remember Ivone Gebara e Nancy Cardoso no Brazil and Wendell Berry in the US giving me a new vocabulary through their books. I had the privilege of having these three giants teaching n my own classes. But besides them, it mostly happened by reading scientists, climatologists, biologists, physicists, botanists, geo-physicists, and so on. They were and are telling us of the dangers of our collective life and our upcoming demise. Our end is coming! They are not inventing things but observing empirical data And all I hear makes me scared! I wish my eschatology was still the one I learned from conservative Christianity: the worse it gets the closer to heaven we are. A friend once told me: don’t worry, we have gone through many ends of the world in our human history before, this is just another one. Yes but now we have science to tell us a bit more than our superstitions and faith. Now we can see and feel the disasters coming!

If you know the signs to look for, it becomes clear that the Earth itself is breathing.

For all the news is alarming! It is not that we have to wait for 100 years for something catastrophic to happen. No! Climate disasters are already happening and calamities are going to mount up. COVID19 everyone! Once I had kids,  everything became way more worrisome. I was so anxious with everything I read I went through a conversion! At the altar of the earth, priestess Robin Kimmerer made once an altar call and I accepted my sense of detachment from the earth, I realized my informal and soft denial of the earth, I recognized my intellectual ability to dismiss it as not so urgent, and I came to terms with the fact that very little in my teaching had to do with the earth.


Now I am changing everything. Not a single course I taught survived… I am desperate to know everything! I feel like I am starting all over again and I have just begun kindergarten. I meet my friends who know so much and I want to sit next to them and listen. All the questions are new: what is theology for? What about God? How can I think of rituals/performances/liturgies from the perspective of the earth? Can Christianity have a voice that are not entangled with the powers of destruction?


I have learned from indigenous people that we have to care for at least 7 generations: 3 before us, our own and 3 ahead of us. Before I had kids I was barely caring for myself. With kids I was caring for them but that was not enough. I learned that I have to care for all those who died and lift them up. I have to care for my great grandchildren and leave the earth much better cared than when I first appeared here.

After my mountaintop conversion before a computer listening to Robin Kimmerer, I have changed my reading, my resources, my attention. I have engaged with Indigenous people, with people who live from and with the earth, those who carry a vast knowledge and live with the pace of the earth. I am feeling different. My emotions have changed, my eyes have changed. I can see God as this multiplicity of life everywhere like I never did. I can understand a certain longing for biodiversity (Jeremy Narby), I see a tree as an elder, I salute the sun, I thank the moon for the day we had and will never come again, I pay attention to the land I am standing, I listen to the birds as if they are singing my songs, I bury little dead animals and say a prayer, I take refuge on the earth. But everything is so different, there is so much alterity, I barely understanding anything. Very strange!


One of the gifts (or curses) we received from this COVID time was to go deep inside ourselves. Ah that is never an easy thing to do. During this time I realized I am a great grandson of an indigenous shaman woman who used to be called a nurse in her community so people wouldn’t be scared of her or others wouldn’t threaten her life. Going deeper also gave me the gift of regaining awareness of the voice of a clown that has lived deeply inside of me. My father was an artist and a clown and there is where I am finding my vital energy these days. I am thinking of a clown show where Pachamama, the clown, meets Gaia and goes around the earth to see and respond to many of the current climate disasters.


I am turning 52 and I am looking into the window of (God-forbid) astrology, a knowledge marked by similitudes and analogies, connections here on earth and the vastness of the sky. Surely the 5000 years of empirical knowledge of astrology numerology and so on were radically erased from modernity whose causal form of knowing ended up marking our proper and acceptable ways of knowing. Anyways, my sign is Capricorn, the sign of earth, oriented by Saturn, the God of time, whose animal is the goat who goes step by step up to the top of the mountain, making a home up there in the sky. At the same time, there is also the sea goat which lives in the sea.


I guess I am coming to terms with Capricorn as the sign of the earth. I want to be connected with the earth, this planet, who is a being with an alterity we can’t grasp but wonder. I am trying to do what Gayatri Spivak said: “imagine ourselves as planetary subjects rather than global agents, planetary creatures rather than global entities.” With Bruno Latour I want to think how we, humans, are not the starting point of any thinking, but rather the earth is, many earths in its incredible existences. Ah this planetary life that we, terraqueous beings, can only think in terms of its “composition, presence and figuration.” (Latour)


This shift in me brought me different senses which are making me lose almost all the senses I know. I am putting my ears to the ground where I belong and my eyes toward the sky where all of the conditions of our living is protected. I now wonder about the “critical zone,” (Latour) which is a few miles above and below the surface of the Earth where everything is organized for our life to happen. Surely the poor will always be my constant concern, for I was one. Empty belies make me faint. But now I am concerned with Polar bears going hungry or the death of fish from eating plastic. Class struggles will continues to be a vortex in my thinking but now I consider the animals, the mountains and the waters as “classes” too. Now I am thinking with Pachamama about many ways of life and living that we must protect. We must live in an economy of reciprocity as Kimmerer says, where we receive the offerings of the earth and we give back with much love, care, protection, kindness and limits. Perhaps I am just learning what Thich Nhat Hanh has taught us: interbeing.


As Brazilian scientist Antonio Donato Nobre says, we are a “walking galaxy of cells systems.” Our bodies have what? 100 trillion cells? Wonder! He says that there is an unconditional love in nature that is based on keeping a system working in harmony, that the central line of natural systems is to take care of others. These cells work in harmony and collaboration. When a cell goes selfish and does not do work with the whole, it becomes a tumor and the whole system begins to work to isolate those cells to kill it, so life can continue. He reminds us that our human system is a system that thrives on this cancerous cells, and we reward those who steal, kill and destroy. I don’t want that for my kids or for the earth.

COVID will leave us a world worse than before. More inequality, more poverty, more hunger, more slave work, more pain, more losses, more disasters. And while our world is going to be much more difficult, I do not want my old life back. We need to live new forms of lives. We need new spiritualities. The major ones we have don’t seem to respond to what we are becoming. After COVID I want us to have limits! I want to continue to give voice to that transformation within me. I want to learn more how to connect ourselves to our bodies. I want to remind myself that my body is the body of the earth and without the earth there is no being, thinking. I want to keep feeding myself with earth’s regenerative life and force time and again. I want to plunge into the complexity of life and the immensity of the unknown.  Science tells us that “dark matter” composes more than 90% of the universe and science knows nothing about it. How fantastic is that?  I am in awe to be such a small part of an alive fullness beyond my imagination. I cannot stop myself from going ahhh, wow, ahhh, wow.


As I interact in a full web of life we call Pachamama, Gaia, Abya Yala, I must commit to earth’s past and future, the ancestry of human beings but way more, the ancestry of rocks, bones, cells, mountains and so many other forms of non-human life. I will live my life to protect the bees, the worms, the waters, the poor, the coral reef, the trees, the biomes of life. I want to do what Italo Calvino said: if we live in the inferno, we must keep what is life within this inferno so these forms of life can not only be sustained but expand into other forms of life.


I am 52, I am getting old. I have learned that my life values what the earth values. I value what the moss value, what the worms value, what the hummingbirds value, what trillion cells value. Value not measured by money, position, accumulation or books I wrote. Rather, my value lies in the uniqueness of my existence with the existence countless other beings. It is in this crossing that I worth everything! Perhaps I am now understanding the whole earth as a sacrament the way St. Augustine talked about the sacrament: receive who you are! I also think I can now say about the earth what Job said about God: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”